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Draw gives Mayo breathing space

Sean Rice
Draw gives Mayo breathing space


Sean RiceSean Rice

NOW that Galway have been wrung out of the system, thoughts turn to the quarter-final and what on the surface seems the least difficult draw . . . against either Meath or Limerick. Both sort out their differences next week and Mayo have a further week’s breather to prepare.
The quarter-final milestone is not new to Mayo. Twice this decade it has been reached . . . on their way to the All-Ireland final. In 2004 John Maughan guided them to victory over Tyrone, and two years later under the short reign of Mickey Moran they beat Laois in a replay.
Over those five years each team has been embossed with the personality of its manager, all three differing in style and organisation. In beating Galway at Pearse Stadium for the first time in 42 years, John O’Mahony may have nudged his charges a rung higher in the importance of victory. The other two were won on home territory.
Although they made it hard for themselves in the end there was more to Mayo’s win than the histrionics of the final breathless seconds of their great escape. It was achieved on merit, hewn from tough hours on the training ground which we had feared might not be enough to compensate for the missing grind of a close semi-final.
Galway’s knife-edge battle with Sligo was why they won most of the breaking ball in the first half against Mayo. They were faster off the mark. Mayo proved to be mentally and physically tougher in the second half, more perceptive in their options and — up to that last crazy minute — more assertive. It was then they provided the proof that they were the better team.
You couldn’t escape the feeling wafting from the thousands spilling onto the pitch to greet that victory that a provincial title still means something. Maybe there was more to it, the way John O’Mahony was carried shoulder high. A deeper message coming from the soul of the team, the faintest glimmer of light on a receding horizon? No Connacht title has been greeted with such rapture by Mayo followers in recent years.
We had been stressing the greater benefit to Galway of their close encounter with Sligo compared to the saunter Mayo enjoyed over Roscommon. Three years ago the positions were reversed. Mayo edged out Leitrim in the semi-final at Carrick-on-Shannon by a point after a titanic struggle, while Galway enjoyed a relatively easy passage over Roscommon. In the final at MacHale Park, Mayo beat their old rivals by one point.
That was a stunning start to Mickey Moran’s year in office, and it threw up a quarter-final meeting with Laois whom they beat in a replay by four points. Three years on and only the remnants of that side remain, as O’Mahony moulds it his way.
Given a choice, anyone of next week’s quarter-finalists would have taken Mayo’s draw. Neither Meath nor Limerick appear the most robust of those left in the championship. But let’s not be fooled. Both will also see Mayo as their preferred option.  We’ll take a closer look at their credentials next week.
In the meantime, Kildare and Tyrone, Cork and Donegal, and Dublin and Kerry go head to head with Dublin, Tyrone and Cork generally fancied to reach the semi-finals. But neither of the other three should be easily dismissed.
Kerry may appear to be down and out. But for all the purported disarray in the camp they are still hanging in there . . . a lingering fuse waiting to be ignited.  And what greater incentive is there than the sight of a sky-blue jersey?
Kildare and the All-Ireland champions ought to be a cracker. A confrontation with Tyrone is the litmus test of Kildare’s progress. They have been impressive this season, but a week’s rest from the scare of Wicklow may not be enough to match the experience of the champions.
Galway’s interest ended with defeat by Donegal at Sligo, a disappointing end to a season that had promised so much. Much of the flair of their early league wins abandoned them in the championship, personified in the waning form of their key strategist Padraig Joyce.
No team has come face to face with the brilliance of Joyce more often than Mayo, and if Trevor Howley had the better of their duels in the Connacht final, it may be attributed to some extent to the slowing down of the great man.
The reflexes have not been as sharp this year, and with a fair amount of mileage on the clock speculation will now centre around the possible retirement of a great servant to Galway football.
Despite their rediscovery of good form Donegal, who ousted the Tribesmen, are not favoured to make further progress against a Cork side widely touted to replace Tyrone as All-Ireland champions.  But that is based mainly on Cork’s defeat of Kerry. Their one point win over Limerick was less impressive . . . a lesson there, perhaps for Mayo.

MINORS FINISH THE JOB IN SOME STYLE
SO dismal was their performance in the drawn Connacht minor final at Pearse Stadium that few held high expectations of Mayo winning the replay at Hyde Park on Sunday. Not for the first time have followers been perplexed by the vagaries of minors.
They said Mayo had left their true form in Sligo where they impressed enough people against Galway to suggest they were certainties for the All-Ireland title.  The plaudits must have fostered complacency, for Mayo were fortunate to escape with a draw in Galway in one of the worst minor finals in years.
Roscommon will claim with certain validity that they were the dominant force in Pearse Stadium but were unable to translate over a dozen good opportunities into scores. Having let Mayo off the hook, however, they got no second chance.
Although the game at Hyde Park was only marginally better, Mayo regained their initial aplomb, working to an obvious plan that eventually outsmarted Roscommon.
At midfield, where they were weak the previous Sunday, they succeeded in breaking the Roscommon stranglehold, denying possession to the taller Roscommon duo and picking up the vast majority of the breaks. There, the foundation of their victory was firmly laid.
But they made it hard for themselves. Three clear chances of goals were wasted in the first half and when they turned over at three points apiece you wondered was it Mayo’s turn to exhaust their manager’s patience.
Ray Dempsey, however, is nothing if not practical and Mayo’s patient delivery to the full-forward line paid off with some fine scores by Cillian O’Connor. At midfield Aidan Walsh, who switched places at full-forward with Alex Corduff, and Danny Kirby might not have won much high ball, but they won midfield, with shrewd use of the wings and spilt ball.
Kirby got their goal in the 35th minute, the ball worked splendidly to him by Walsh and O’Connor. It knocked the heart out of Roscommon and Mayo grittily defended their lead to the end — Keith Rogers, Michael Slingermann, Shane McDermott, the indefatigable Andrew Farrell, Walsh, Kirby and O’Connor turning in exemplary performances.
Next Monday they take on Tipperary in the quarter-final while Roscommon play Kerry.